Extra! Americans losing sense of place!

One of the things that we hope will characterize Madroño Ranch: A Center for Writing and the Environment is a strong sense of place. It’s right there, implicitly and explicitly, in our mission and vision statements, just off to your right.

But how does one develop a sense of place? One answer, at least in part, and for those of us of a certain age, has been by reading the local newspaper. But the newspaper as we know it seems to be going the way of the 8-track and the VHS tape. Increasingly, people opt to get their news in a way that doesn’t leave ink smudges on their hands, or require drying in the oven on rainy mornings. In other words, they’re reading the “paper” online.

In “Final Edition: Twilight of the American Newspaper,” in the November issue of Harper’s, Richard Rodriguez examines the decline of his (and my) hometown paper, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the historical importance of the newspaper in American life.

The press, Rodriguez argues, was the indicator and bestower of civic stature: “It was the pride and the function of the American newspaper in the nineteenth century to declare the forming congregation of buildings and services a city—a place busy enough or populated enough to have news.” In addition, the rise of the newspaper was a sign of the small-d democratic nature of American culture, “a vestige of the low-church impulse toward universal literacy whereby the new country imagined it could read and write itself into existence.”

But, for many, the newspaper seems to have outlived its usefulness. The Atlantic Monthly’s Megan McArdle, in an online (of course) column titled “The Media Death Spiral,” writes, “The circulation figures for the top 25 dailies in the U.S. are out, and they’re horrifying. The median decline is well into the teens; only the Wall Street Journal gained (very slightly).”

She adds, “I think we’re witnessing the end of the newspaper business, full stop, not the end of the newspaper business as we know it. The economics just aren’t there.”

Those of us who read the Austin American-Statesman have noted the signs already: a shrinking paper, meaning fewer ads and less revenue; the anorexic classifieds (a victim of craigslist) tacked onto the back of the Life and Arts section; the business and metro sections combined.

Why should we care whether or not the Statesman survives? According to Rodriguez, “When a newspaper dies in America, it is not simply that a commercial enterprise has failed; a sense of place has failed. If the San Francisco Chronicle is near death… it is because San Francisco’s sense of itself as a city is perishing.”

Does he exaggerate? Maybe. But once the newspapers are gone, he asks, “who will tell us what it means to live as citizens of Seattle or Denver or Ann Arbor? The truth is we no longer want to live in Seattle or Denver or Ann Arbor. Our inclination has led us to invent a digital cosmopolitanism that begins and ends with ‘I.’”

Rodriguez quotes a friend of his, a journalist from India: “If I think of what many of my friends and I read these days, it is still a newspaper, but it is clipped and forwarded in bits and pieces on email—a story from the New York Times, a piece from Salon, a blog from the Huffington Post, something from the Times of India, from YouTube. It is like a giant newspaper being assembled at all hours, from every corner of the world, still with news but no roots in a place. Perhaps we do not need a sense of place anymore.”

That statement really bothers me, for a couple of reasons. I can understand the appeal of what Philip Meyer, a student of the industry, calls “the demassification of the media”; in the bottom-up model of journalism, each consumer is free to pick and choose the information he or she deems most valuable, rather than being forced to rely on the judgment of a corporate editor. What could be more democratic?

But such a model does come with a cost. As Meyer writes in his book The Vanishing Newspaper: Saving Journalism in the Information Age, “If we’re all attending to different messages, our capacity to understand one another is diminished.”

And what about that speculation from Rodriguez’s friend, “Perhaps we do not need a sense of place anymore”? Perhaps not. But I don’t want to live in a world where people no longer feel connected to the land and the people around them. In a society that has traditionally viewed “light[ing] out for the territory,” in the words of that old newspaperman Mark Twain, as the solution to every problem, how do we convince folks that they have a stake in, and a responsibility to, their surroundings? As strip malls and chain stores and fast-food outlets and cookie-cutter housing developments and, yes, the internet make every place more like every other place, how are we supposed to know or care where we are?

I don’t know the answer to that question, but I think we better find one. People who feel strongly connected to their surroundings, urban or rural or in between, feel that the place is theirs; they know it, feel it, eat it, sleep it, and live it. They’re also more likely to take care of it. I certainly hope that the things that make Madroño Ranch special to us—the hills, the water, the rocks, the trees—will outlive us, and our children, and our children’s children, and we intend to do all we can to make sure they do.

What we’re reading
Mary Oliver (ed.), The Best American Essays 2009
Martin: Douglas Brinkley, The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America

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2 Responses to Extra! Americans losing sense of place!

  1. PATRICIA says:

    You have expressed what I've been thinking and feeling for the last twenty five years. When I returned to Austin in 1982, after having been gone for fourteen years, my heart sank at the change in this beautiful land I knew growing up. There is a subtle loss of identity with the change and homogenization. Remember FUTURE SHOCK from 1968ish? Perhaps worth rereading.
    The beauty of what you two are doing, is creating an example, a place, an environment which says, stop….look….listen…reflect….and take action: heal the deep dark underlying bruise created by our lack of awareness or inaction. Deepest gratitude to you both, fondly Patricia Morrison

  2. Galatia says:

    great post martin. do you know of marc auge as below? keep it going, stephen k


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